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Why Linda Tirado? Why Not A Genuine Poor Person?
As you've know doubt heard, Linda Tirado recently published a wildly popular essay about why her poverty forces her to make impoverishing decisions:
There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it's rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.
Rest is a luxury for the rich. ...
(Which might comes as surprise to intern MD's, lawyers who haven't made partner, untenured professors, entrepreneurs, and so forth, but never mind.)
Kind-hearted people immediately sent her $60,000, which she took to Las Vegas.
Not surprisingly, it turns out Ms. Tirado comes from an upper middle class background (e.g., she could have been a boarding student at Cranbrook School, where Mitt Romney matriculated). And she isn't all that poor in income. Her husband is in the military (soldiers aren't well paid, but they are a lot better paid than they were pre-1981). And her parents help her out.
(Since the exposure of her actual story, she now seems to emphasize her personal mental health problems.)
The question I want to ask is this: In America, there are millions and millions of genuinely born-poor-and-stayed-that-way people. And yet, none of them managed to exploit this evident opportunity as effectively as this child of privilege. Why not?
My impression is that Tirado smartly exploited a meme that has been hot in what we might call the Gladwellsphere ever since the publication on August 20, 2013 of a paper in Science:
The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.
For an example of how welcome this study was to the conventional wisdom, here's Matthew Yglesias summarizing the meme in Slate on September 3:
In other words, this study was welcome fodder in the constant hunger for clickbait about how "Republicans Are Wrong Because Science." Lots of other publications in what you might call the semi-bright realm of the media, The Atlantic, NPR, etc., made a big, big deal over this. So the market was primed for somebody like Tirado who has the kind of rhetorical skills that appeal to SWPLs (despite all her complaints that lack of money has lowered her IQ, she's a deft writer who understands what her market wants to hear) to step forward with the seeming inside skinny that personalizes this popular meme.
Among people born poor who have stayed that way, however, few can write as well as Tirado; but I have to imagine that in a country as large as America, there must be some who can.
More subtle roadblocks to an actual poor person cashing in the way Ms. Tirado has include:
Genuine poor people, in contrast, don't really pay much attention to the Huffington Post and the like and aren't really that interested in the partisan battles that consume so many people of higher classes. Moreover, genuine poor people tend to have attitudes and beliefs that are distinctly off-putting to SWPLs. But real poor people are seldom sensitive enough to the class marker aversions of the upper middle class to write a long essay that avoids stepping on any of those landmines.
In other words, it really is better to be from an upper middle class background. People will treat you nicer, as they've treated Ms. Tirado.
And it's better to be intelligent enough -- even if you are signally lacking in Executive Function—to pick up quickly on the ideas filtering down from the upper reaches of society the way that Ms. Tirado jumped all over the "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function" boomlet.
P.S., In contrast, Audacious Epigone writes an essay, based on General Social Survey data, about what a typical underclass woman would say if she could write as well as Tirado and were honest.
For more insights into the complex interplay of poverty and bad decisions, here is The Onion's opinion columnist Amber Richardson's trenchant essay Why Somebody Always Around Every Time I Drop My Baby? Other illuminating efforts by Ms. Richardson are here, here, and here.